Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Saying it was time to invest in Missoula's social needs, county commissioners on Thursday agreed to place a Crisis Services Levy on the November ballot to fund homeless operations, mental health care and treatment for addiction.

While it won't be the only funding request on this year's ballot, the crisis levy would raise 20 mills if passed, or around $5 million a year, to fund a range of services the city and county launched using federal funding tied to the pandemic.

That funding, which included the American Rescue Plan Act, is now set to expire and without another source of revenue, many of the programs it has funded will end. That, advocates contend, isn't an option they can settle with.

“Soon, ARPA funding provided to Missoula by our federal government will run out. There's currently no plan in place to run programs supported by that funding,” said Shannon Flanagan, who is helping spearhead the levy request. “Without replacing this funding, the programs the city and county has created to support those in the community who are experiencing struggles with homelessness, addiction and mental health will disappear.”

The city and county over the past few years, in partnership with local organizations, invested millions of dollars in one-time funding to tip up a number of programs directed at homelessness, housing, domestic violence and crisis intervention.

The efforts have included the Temporary Safe Outdoor Space and a sanctioned homeless camp. The city and county also invested in winter shelter, helped fund operations at the Poverello, and contributed to low-income housing and property acquisitions to shelter vulnerable populations.

Several people who have turned to such services for help praised the county's efforts and urged commissions to back the levy. The Missoula City Council is expected to do the same.

“I was homeless for three years. I was a domestic violence survivor,” Linda Clark said Thursday. “The Temporary Safe Outdoor Space enabled me a safe place to be where I could work on myself. I have permanent housing now, and life is getting better.”

Under the ballot measure, the owner of a home with an assessed value of $100,000 would see a tax increase of $27 per year. The owner of a home assessed at $200,000 would pay $54 per year. Several other funding requests have either been adopted this year or will appear on the November ballot.

Janice Staton, representing the First United Methodist Church, said that while the levy would raise taxes on property owners, the congregation still supports funding crisis services in Missoula.

“We know from our first-hand experience that the crisis services the county created during the pandemic are vital for people we care about and care for in the community,” she said. “Mental illness and untreated addiction fuel homelessness, create dangerous behavior and diminish the well-being of all of us.”

Missoula voters in June passed a levy request to provide greater funding for Missoula Aging Services. This week, Missoula County Commissioners also approved a $4.4 million general obligation bond to cover a wage claim filed by county sheriff deputies.

Last week, commissioners also agreed to place a separate general obligation bond on the November ballot to raise $19 million for improvements at the fairgrounds, including a livestock building and more recreational ice. The Crisis Services Levy will appear on the ballot with the fairgrounds bond.

Opponents in written comment asked the county not to place the Crisis Services Levy on the ballot, citing ongoing tax increases. Other opponents suggested that such services would continue to attract those in need to Missoula, costing taxpayers even more down the road.

But on Thursday, at least, none of the opponents of the levy spoke in public testimony. Last week during the hearing on the fairgrounds bond, no opponent spoke then, either.

Advocates for the levy on Thursday included a University of Montana professor, a psychologist, an emergency room nurse, faith leaders, system providers and former homeless individuals who have used the services to turn their life around.

Commissioners were compelled by the testimony.

“The time for handwringing is over. It's time to get down to business,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “We don't have tens of millions of dollars stashed in banks or sitting in the courthouse. What we do have is the opportunity to ask community members to adopt a levy.”

The state of Montana is currently sitting on a budget surplus of more than $1 billion. City and county officials in recent years have lamented the state's lack of support for funding such services, leaving local taxpayers to cover the cost.

“We have seen the immense benefits for our clients when they receive immediate access to mental health care,” said Abby Harnett with the Western Montana Mental Health Center. “Mental health emergencies have increased across the board and demand for crisis services have risen.”

While many praised the new crisis intervention efforts launched by the city and county, others praised the range of shelters in Missoula created for the homeless. That included the Emergency Winter Shelter, which is run by the Poverello Center.

The city and county helped fund shelter operations last year, and even covered wages to help the Poverello attract workers. Jill Bonny, the shelter's executive director, said the winter shelter housed 100 people a night on average last year.

“These are the folks most likely to die on the street. The winter shelter provides them with safety from the elements as well as a hub of resources for their journey into housing,” Bonny said. “For the past two winters, we've been able to report that zero individuals have died on the street due to exposure in Montana's harsh winter weather. This is a direct result of our emergency winter shelter. Going backwards will cost lives.”